Here at Leaf Score, we like to bring you recommendations for things like air purifiers and the best cooktops, and talk about why polyfoam mattress are terrible for indoor air quality, but did you know that one of the biggest determinants of your exposure to air pollution is race?
Here are five startling facts on air pollution and race:
- Black people are exposed to about 1.5 times more air pollution than white people – according to a 2018 report from the US Environmental Protection Agency
- Hispanics experience about 1.2 times more air pollution than non-Hispanic whites (according to the same report)
- Chronic chlorine inhalation is much more prevalent in Hispanic populations in America, which can seriously affect heart function
- High exposure to air pollution during the final trimester, which is more common in Black mothers, is linked to a 42% increase in the risk of stillbirth
- Total exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) was 52% higher in Mexican Americans and 37% higher in non-Hispanic Black people than in non-Hispanic white people as reported in a 2008 report.
For more, see the NY Times excellent article, titled: Pollution is Killing Black Americans: This Community Fought Back
Below, I look at what’s going on with environmental justice in America, and the steps we can all take to reduce air pollution in general and our own exposure to pollution.
The disproportionate impact of air pollution on people of color in America
As wildfires (AKA climate fires) rage across the US and elsewhere, temperatures rise, and smog and traffic exhaust return to cities previously quietened by stay-at-home notices, there is increasing awareness of the importance of clean air to good health. There’s also a growing understanding that the Black community tends to be hit hardest by air pollution and other types of environmental pollution, along with other racialized communities in the US (and Canada).
Temperatures and air pollution tend to be higher in neighborhoods where residents are predominantly Black. This is thanks to a lack of trees and green space and closer proximity to power plants and manufacturing sites as well as major highways and roads. More than 1.2 million people live in high-pollution zones within 500 feet of a Southern California freeway, for instance, where California air quality regulators warn against building. Millions more live within 1000 feet of a freeway in SoCal, and where traffic pollution is highest, so are rates of asthma, cancer, heart attacks, strokes, reduced lung function, pre-term births and numerous other health problems.
Unfortunately, the same areas contending with greater heat and air pollution also tend to be home to people with little access to air conditioning and air filtration. Indeed, a report released by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2018, courtesy of the National Center for Environmental Assessment found that not only are people of color much more likely to live near polluting industries and to breathe polluted air, results “at national, state, and county scales all indicate that non-Whites tend to be burdened disproportionately to Whites.”
(not so) Fine particulate matter
The EPA’s study found specifically that those in poverty are exposed to more fine particulate matter than people above the poverty line. Fine particulate matter is a type of air pollution that can be both manmade and natural. Types include traffic fumes, smog, soot, construction dust, climate fire smoke and ash, general smoke and ash, and oil smoke.
Particulate matter is a known carcinogen, as listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The EPA has also noted that it contributes to several health issues, including lung and cardiovascular conditions and possible premature death. The trouble with this fine particulate matter is that it can get deep into lung tissue. Given that we are currently in a global pandemic thanks to a respiratory virus, which also disproportionately affects people of color, and given increased risks of climate fires, this is of even greater concern than ever.
According to the EPA, air pollution in the form of particulate matter can lead to irritation of the airways, coughing, or difficulty breathing, and health effects such as:
- decreased lung function;
- aggravated asthma;
- development of chronic bronchitis;
- irregular heartbeat;
- nonfatal heart attacks; and
- premature death in people with heart or lung disease.
Even healthy people can be affected by particulate matter pollution, although it is older adults and younger children who are most heavily affected.
It’s not just the overall particulate matter level that matters either. It turns out that people of color are at higher risk of exposure to some of the most dangerous types of air pollution. Chronic chlorine inhalation, for instance, is much more prevalent in Hispanic populations in America, and this is known to severely affect heart function.
Other types of pollution and environmental racism
Of course, it’s not just air pollution that disproportionately affects people of color. The burden of lead pollution and poisoning also falls more heavily on Black Americans, for instance.
Pollution with benzene and other harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) has also long impacted people of color the most. In a study using data from with research from 1999-2000, researchers noted that “levels of total VOC exposure were 52% and 37% higher in Mexican Americans and non-Hispanic blacks, respectively, than in non-Hispanic whites.”
The health of Black mothers and babies in the US
This racial disparity in air pollution and other types of environmental injustice/racism is borne out by studies finding much worse health outcomes for Black mothers and babies. This was discussed in a New York Times article from 2020. Some of the key findings from the studies include more stillbirths, premature births, and lower birth weights linked to higher air temperatures and higher levels of ozone and particulate matter. High exposure to air pollution during the final trimester, for instance, has been linked to a 42% increase in the risk of stillbirth.
The particular vulnerability of Black mothers to heat and air pollution very likely plays a part in the dramatically higher likelihood of stillbirth and low birth weight. Black babies are twice as likely to be stillborn as white babies and 2.4 times more likely to be of low birth weight (according to this analysis and this 2018 paper).
What can we do
There’s little question that environmental pollution affects people of color more profoundly. The solution to this imbalance is not, of course, to try moving polluting industries to predominantly white and more affluent neighborhoods. Instead, an effective environmental justice approach needs to feature a comprehensive strategy to reduce overall pollution. The greatest impact would be felt in those neighborhoods currently suffering the most, but everyone would benefit long-term, making the strategy more sustainable.
What does this look like in practice? Largely, it will involve engagement in local, state, and federal politics to help elect politicians who understand the issue and are committed to making legislative changes for the better.
It also means holding current elected officials to account through phone calls, protests, petitions, emails, letter writing campaigns, and active lobbying by community groups. In some cases, it means taking steps to hold corporations accountable directly, through public awareness campaigns of polluters, greenwashing, and those lobbying government for more relaxed environmental laws.
There are also some phenomenal charitable organizations working to improve neighborhoods impacted by air pollution. American Forests is one of the oldest conservancies in the United States. Some of our readers may know that LeafScore is an American Forests corporate partner, we donate 10% of profits from this site to planting trees with American Forests, with each dollar we donate resulting in one tree planted. One of American Forest’s tree planting initiatives is focused on “Tree Equity.” The Tree Equity campaign has as its goal the planting of millions of trees in underserved, largely urban communities, which lack the tree canopies necessary top cool down temperatures and sequester carbon. You can learn more about the Tree Equity program here, including how to donate.
At a personal level, there are also steps you can take to improve air quality in your home and reduce your likely exposure to other pollutants. By choosing safer products yourself, you are also helping to send a market signal to manufacturers that unsafe, polluting processes and environmentally damaging goods are not wanted, while supporting those companies doing better by customers, workers, and their neighbors.
Minimizing air pollution exposure
If you can avoid living near a freeway, great. Realistically, though, this is a challenge for anyone living below the poverty line. However, if you live in Los Angeles, or Southern California, you can check how close your home or apartment is to the nearest freeway using this tool created by the Los Angeles Times in conjunction with atmospheric scientists at UCLA. It’s generally recommended that we try to live at a distance of at least 1,000 feet from a major freeway as that is the zone where air pollution is highest.
Thankfully, even absent moving, there are still some ways to reduce your exposure to air pollution. Finding a home behind a sound wall, for instance, ideally with thick trees and plants growing above it can help reduce pollution levels.
If you have the choice, avoid at-grade freeways and go for above ground or underground freeways instead. This also helps reduce exposure. Homes in areas where there are buildings of different heights and parks, trees, and open spaces are also a good choice as this kind of architecture can allow pollutants to disperse. Blocks with tall buildings on both sides tend to trap pollution. It’s also best to avoid living near to highway interchanges and freeway ramps where pollution can be twice as high.
As for other measures you can take to reduce your exposure to hazardous air pollutants, consider:
- Exercising later in the morning instead of at sunrise when stagnant weather conditions trap freeway pollution
- Keeping your windows closed in the early morning and late at night when traffic pollution can drift more than a mile downwind from a freeway
- Driving less, driving smarter, and using the ‘recirculate’ button with the windows up to cut pollution to 20% of on-road levels
- Using public transit or wear an air filtering mask when walking or cycling
- Avoiding major intersections and stoplights, where clouds of concentrated pollution occur at green lights.
It’s also helpful, of course, to switch to a zero-emission vehicle. That said, this only accounts for the tailpipe generated pollution. In the US, the electricity used to charge electric cars still comes from coal-fired power stations in many states, which means the burden of pollution is simply shifted closer to Black and other racialized communities. Charging your electric vehicle at home using a home solar array, wind, or microhydro power is far better for air pollution overall. Or, if you have the option, switch to a green energy provider.
Other non-exhaust pollutants include dust from brake pads and tires, which contains toxic metals, synthetic rubber, and other chemicals nobody should be breathing in. So, even if we all switched to EVs today, some air pollution would still exist and disproportionately affect communities of color. (We should still switch to EVs though!)
Minimizing indoor air pollution
Inside the home, it’s best to avoid furniture, carpets, and soft furnishings that off-gas VOCs. This means choosing products made without chemical flame retardants, polyurethane foam, manufactured wood (for the most part) and products with fresh stains, paints, lacquers, and glues based on VOCs like formaldehyde and benzene.
Filtering your water can also help reduce exposure to pollutants, as can using a high quality air filter such as a HEPA type air filter. This is especially important if you are pregnant or have a young child or vulnerable older adult in the home. In some cases, you may be able to qualify for a rebate through local health initiatives or insurance, so ask around before buying. You can also find these devices secondhand for less money, though be sure to check the price of replacement filters as these can be as expensive for some models as a brand new more affordable model.
Finally, to leave on a hopeful note, there are signs of bigger environmental action ahead from the current White House. Under the previous administration, a wide swath of federal environmental-justice work was halted or rolled back, including some civil-rights investigations. Staff and scientists working on environmental justice issues were also fired or resigned as working conditions became untenable. The current administration has begun to reinstate many of those scientists, programs, and investigations, and in addition to promises made about reducing PFAS contamination, there are also plans to reinstate more robust measures previously included in the Clean Air Act.
Some lawmakers don’t think that Biden’s plan goes far enough though, so if environmental justice and air pollution is something you care about, be sure to contact your representatives to encourage them to support tighter restrictions on polluting industries and vehicle emissions.